Wayne Rooney showed against Watford why it is a risk to play him in central midfield

Having often played as a central midfielder in the latter stages of his Manchester United career, it was always going to be intriguing to see where Wayne Rooney lined up when he made his return to boyhood club Everton last summer.

While he had often done well in a deeper role for the Red Devils he still wasn’t a regular starter under Jose Mourinho last season, and it was unclear whether he would play in a more advanced role at a smaller club like the Toffees, where he could have more of an impact and be more influential in the final third.

Former boss Ronald Koeman’s thoughts on where the 32-year-old should play were made clear on the first day of the current Premier League season when he lined up on the right-hand side of the two in a 3-4-2-1 system at home to Stoke City, scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 victory.

The former England international then started as a striker against Manchester City the following week – also getting on the score-sheet – and he continued to play in a range of attacking positions in what was a tough start to the campaign for the Merseyside outfit and Koeman, including on both wings, as an attacking midfielder, centre-forward and support striker.

It was clear where the Dutch boss believed Rooney should be playing and it wasn’t as though he had lots of in-form players in the deeper midfield roles, with neither Morgan Schneiderlin nor Idrissa Gueye replicating the fine performances and strong partnership they had built in the second-half of the 2016/17 campaign.

The 32-year-old scored four goals in nine Premier League matches before Koeman got the boot after the 5-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in October, but he continued to play in attacking positions under caretaker boss David Unsworth, and he made a huge impression in his last match in charge before Sam Allardyce took permanent charge.

The former Manchester United man scored a hat-trick from an attacking midfield position in the much-needed 4-0 win against West Ham United at Goodison Park, including a stunning goal from his own half.

It perhaps showed Allardyce that Rooney could still be hugely influential playing further forward, and it proved to be the case over the next few top flight fixtures as he captained the team in the absence of Phil Jagielka and scored in three successive games against Liverpool, Newcastle United and Swansea City before the busy festive period.

The 32-year-old had 10 goals in 16 Premier League matches at that point, but three straight defeats at the end of 2017 and into 2018, as well as the arrivals of Theo Walcott from Arsenal and Cenk Tosun from Besiktas during the January transfer window, saw the former Three Lions skipper move back to more of a central midfield role.

Rooney came on to play there when James McCarthy suffered a double leg break in the 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion at Goodison Park in January, and he started there again as Allardyce opted for a 4-3-3 system against Leicester City 11 days later.

He showed his defensive weakness by giving away a penalty in the 2-1 win, and he was left on the substitutes’ bench for the 5-1 loss against Arsenal three days later.

Allardyce was now favouring a 4-3-3 formation and the 32-year-old returned to the middle of the park for the 3-1 win against Crystal Palace, and he kept his place for the trip to Watford following a much-improved display with his intelligent use of the ball seeing him named as the man of the match.

The same couldn’t be said at Vicarage Road though, where he looked off the pace and was sloppy in possession throughout, putting his team on the back foot on a number of occasions before he was replaced by Dominic Calvert-Lewin on 82 minutes.

It showed that despite the amount of experience he has, he is perhaps not suited to playing the central midfield role for a team where he has more defensive work to do in that position than he had when playing there for United.

It is proof that it is a risk to play Rooney in central midfield in the remaining stages of the season unless he has two defensively-minded players alongside him in a 4-3-3 system, and it will be interesting to see whether Allardyce sticks with that formation and whether he keeps Rooney in the XI for the trip to Burnley on Saturday given that below-par performance.

The evidence suggest that the 32-year-old needs to be playing further forward for Everton, but with competition from Theo Walcott, Yannick Bolasie, Gylfi Sigurdsson among others, it is difficult to see a spot for him in the starting line-up right now and it gives his manager something of a big conundrum.

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